A Visit with Silicon Canal

Silicon Canal is an organization here in Birmingham with a mission statement focused around promoting and growing the tech community. As I’m famously suspicious of gatekeeping and organizations which could be perceived as representing diverse tech communities, I asked on Twitter if anyone in the local tech community had seen value out of the organization. Silicon Canal reached out, asking if I would like to attend one of their meetings.

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 10.01.44

What Silicon Canal does

At the moment, not much. But they’re working on it! They currently run a series of monthly drink ups in Birmingham and handle inbound press queries about the Birmingham tech scene. The meeting covered a range of possible future actions, including an industry awards event, developing a local jobs board and a more complete directory of technology companies in the West Midlands.

Where Silicon Canal could prove valuable

Based on their current membership and focus, Silicon Canal could be a great asset for working to drive business development for the tech industry in Birmingham through outreach with existing and upcoming traditional tech businesses, investment and policy makers. This is an area that many fledgling tech scenes fail to properly manage, so could be an incredible opportunity for Birmingham to grow.

Where Silicon Canal misses the mark

While their mission statement and ambitions cover the whole of the tech community in Birmingham, their lack of outreach into the wider community limits their ability to represent those outside their immediate networks. At one point during the meeting the phrase “This may be patronizing, but the community doesn’t always know what they want, what they need” was thrown out in response to a question about how input from the community had helped shape their actions. The members seemed to have a fairly limited perspective of the individuals and resources available throughout Birmingham, understandable in our famously decentralized tech scene.

Transparency and governance may prove an additional challenge. At one point a public bids process for some web development work was proposed to add transparency to the process. Another member suggested that it might be a good idea to accept bids from the public to garner the appearance of transparency while going forward with awarding the bid to another Silicon Canal member at the close of the process.

Can Silicon Canal represent the community?

Silicon Canal would be well placed to represent a narrow set of business interests within technology in Birmingham, which they seem to be doing capably. Given that they’ve been operating for a little more than 2 years and have thus far managed to spotlight only individuals and companies from a narrow portion of tech in Birmingham, they may not be well placed to represent the vast and disparate interests of the larger community.

My advice for Silicon Canal

I would love to see Silicon Canal better shaping their mission statement to reflect the scope of their activity to date. While I’m still looking quite critically of a Silicon Canal aiming to promote and represent the wider Birmingham tech community, I would be the biggest cheerleader of the organization presenting narrower claims of representing growth around business interests in the tech community here in the West Midlands.

My advice for the tech community in Birmingham

Silicon Canal seem like a great group of people, well suited to help support us as we grow the ecosystem. During the meeting members pointed out several times that an organization always develops to represent a tech scene. If you don’t feel like Silicon Canal is best poised to do that, it’s a good time to start your own project. Don’t worry about burning bridges, Silicon Canal members talked happily about welcoming competition in this space.

Having seen a wide range of talent, interests and passions in technologists across the West Midlands, I sincerely believe that we can create a tech scene that doesn’t mirror the often wasteful and exclusionary dynamic other cities cope with. I would love to see community driven engagement coming from our tech scene doing outreach on behalf of this same community.

My advice for tech journalists

The Birmingham tech scene is exciting, I’m glad journalists are interested in it. But Birmingham’s tech scene is wonderfully decentralized. If you’re Googling for “tech scene Birmingham” and reaching out only to the first org you find, you’re doing a bad job. Check out, Impact Hub, Innovation Birmingham, FizzPop, The Black Country Atelier, BOM Lab and other resources to get a better perspective of the ecosystem.

Birmingham Open Code

From April the 8th there will be a weekly event for collaborative programming study sessions in Birmingham. We’ll be meeting in the Woodman Pub from 6 pm.

Birmingham Open Code is designed to provide a peer supported, mixed level learning environment. Programmers and aspiring programmers working in any language are welcome. The weekly schedule is designed to create a casual environment where learners can drop in for social learning as needed, without feeling the need to make every event. We’re looking to keep these study sessions as inclusive as possible. You’re welcome no matter your skill level, level of education, age, gender, race, sexual identity, or sexual orientation.

If you’re an established programmer bring your laptop and be ready to help out newbies while socializing with your peers. If you’ve never programmed before and want to start, bring some great questions to get you started in the right direction.

There are also a number of hands on workshops in a range of technologies and experience levels in the pipeline. These may be added as monthly events to supplement the Open Code study sessions. Currently workshops in introductory and advanced Python, technical writing and Ruby have been proposed. To lead your own workshop, get in touch at jessica(at)

The space is handicap accessible and close to both Birmingham’s Moor Street and New Street stations.

Backlinks and SEO for Startups

Here are the slides from a short talk on the value of backlinks and basic SEO for startups that I gave in 2013 to a group of entrepreneurs at Innovation Birmingham. Notes on each slide are available below in text format.

The Value of Backlinks

This presentation will look at the topics listed:
What is SEO?
Why is SEO important for startups?
What are backlinks?
Links passing attributes.
Competitor analysis through backlinks.

What is SEO

SEO is the act or practice of making your site more visible to search engines to better facilitate users or clients finding your site. Search engines generally look at three groups of factors to rank sites, on page factors, off page factors and user intent. Links are an off page factor we’ll discuss in greater detail in this presentation.

Importance of SEO for startups

Startups may lack name recognition in the market, are often still establishing a client base, may lack budgets for traditional marketing and are usually looking to break into an exsiting market. Basic, low cost SEO for startups could let them increase discovery without incurring higher costs.


Backlinks are an off page factor that most search engines use as part of their ranking algorithms. The act as a vote of confidence from the referring domain, indicating to search engines that the referring domain found value in the linked content. Backlinks can pass along indications of trust, value or may pass along negative attributes.

Measuring link value

Most search engines don’t have a publicly available, transparent algorithm for how they rank sites or value backlinks, so webmasters are left to use their best judgement and available best practices and guidelines. Without having solid data from the search engines, may turn to third party metrics to judge the value of their links. I’ll be looking at two metrics from Majestic SEO

Trust flow is a metric designed to show how well connected a site is to the trusted parts of the internet which may reflect the relative quality of the site’s links.
Citation flow is a metric designed to measure the volume of power that a site’s links bring to it.

Both Trust and Citation flow are scores out of 100. As these metrics cover the entire range of the web, it’s rare to see numbers in the 80+ range outside of giant, internationally recognized sites. Ideally, you’ll want to see Trust flow roughly equal to or higher than Citation flow. Seeing significantly higher Citation flow than Trust flow could indicate a spammy link profile.

Good Link Profile

This image shows each of the referring domains for a large site mapped out on an X Y axis showing Trust and Citation flow. We’re seeing a strong peak and the mass of referring domains following the center line. This is an unusually strong link profile, with a significant amount of Trust.

Bad Link Profile

This image shows the same data, for a site with a much less impressive link profile. This site has significantly higher Citation flow than Trust flow, suggesting that the links may look spammy or unnatural and that this site my be at a higher risk of penalties. The Citation flow for this site is dramatically higher than the Trust.

Competitor Analysis

Backlinks can be about more than just SEO for startups. Links can also be used to discover valuable insights about competitors. Their link profiles can be used to gauge their relative strength both in search and the market, may allow you to discover keyword they’ve optimized for through their anchor text, can help you identify their clients, users and fans and may lend insight into their marketing strategy.

Have questions about SEO for startups? Ask in the comments below or find me on Twitter.

Twitter API Project

I’ve been gone for a few weeks, not just from blogging about learning to code but from studying as well. In my (feeble) defense, I’ve been on the road for work, visiting Brighton, Hong Kong and Japan in the past few weeks.

Luckily, I live in a wonderful city which has given me a real world reason to get back into programming. Cherry Reds is a cafe with two locations here in Birmingham. It’s also the place that I had the best steak of my life, as one of their daily specials. With their second location having opened just up the street from me, it has become even more important to know what their daily specials are. Are they steak?!

Cherry Reds posts their daily specials on twitter. Twitter has a public API. This week’s (possibly this month’s) project will be to use the twitter API to check @ilovecherryreds twitter feed at 11 am and 1 pm, searching for new tweets with the keywords “special” or “specials”. If tweets with these keywords also contain the words “steak” or “cake” (they have great cakes, as well) I would like to have a constructed twitterbot excitedly contact me with the news.

Let me know if anyone has any advice, criticism or wants to hear more about Cherry Reds!

Interview: Mike Elsmore, Hackfrence Brum

Birmingham’s going to be hosting its first major tech conference and hackathon this weekend, Hackfrence Brum, hosted by Mike Elsmore. I sat down with Mike to chat about the event, his motivations for putting it together and some of the challenges he faced.

Can you tell me what’s unique, what’s really special about this event?

Really, there’s nothing special about the format of the conference or the hackathon. There have been conferences with the same format, hackathons with the same format and they’ve been put back to back before. The new part of this event is that it’s going to be held here in Birmingham, where we’ve not yet hosted large scale hackathons aside from Hydrahack.

Why do you think that Birmingham hasn’t yet hosted an event like this?

The hack scene tends to get quite cliquey which has prevented it from growing into a larger, more comprehensive community.

Organizing this seems to have been a massive undertaking, why did you want to do this?

I had been annoyed that there weren’t events like this to attend in Birmingham. I’ve hand selected the speakers for this conference, wanting to be able to share their knowledge. My motivation to host the hackathon as well stems from my desire to create a shared learning space. What’s the point of an event like this if everyone isn’t learning?

You’ve chosen to host both the conference and the hackathon in Digbeth. Can you talk a bit about the venues?

I chose Digbeth both because it’s convenient to the city centre and for the approachable and unpolished feel. I had originally hoped to put both events in the Custard Factory but were forced to find other spaces due to scheduling conflicts. Luckily Fazely studios was able to host the conference portion of the weekend while Boxxed stepped up to provide hackspace.

Tell me about your sponsors.

I’ve been incredibly lucky not just to find sponsors willing to contribute materially to this event but also to find so much support. Contacted sponsors who weren’t able to make a material contribution assisted with advice, support and helped me get in touch with more potential sponsors. This has been one of the most encouraging parts of the process.

And your speakers?

I’m really proud of these speakers. I hand selected experts based on what skills and expertise I personally found interesting and then reached out to the wider community to see what kinds of skills they were interested in as well. We’ve got a full day of just incredible, world class speakers.

Has marketing and promoting this event been a challenge?

Not really, I’ve ignored a lot of traditional marketing because there just wasn’t the budget for it. I think that events should give up on traditional marketing and just spend their time on twitter. It’s worked out really well for this event.

Mike Elsmore is a first time organizer, part time hacker and long time coder. Trying to become and help grow the development scene in Birmingham as well as becoming a better developer along the way.

Human Resources

One of the things that has helped me the most in trying to learn to code is an awareness of how I learn best. Through language study I’ve learned that I’m not able to get much out of videos or podcasts. I’ve also had a hard time with working from books that teach grammar through tables and charts. I’ve found myself best able to learn when working with interactive tutorials, in classroom and small study group environments and through projects. So when I set myself to study code I’ve skipped past the video tutorials and got involved with Codecademy’s and W3 Schools’ tutorials and small, self guided projects.

What I’m interested in doing now is finding other humans to explore these languages with me. I’m looking for both people who might be able to help teach and direct me and for peers to study with. Trying to find people to work with on this project has been a rewarding process in itself. In my search for guidance I’ve gone out to a number of great events and reached out to some brilliant people I might not otherwise have.

Attending these events and expanding my contacts has helped me continue to refine an idea of what I might want to do with these skills. Thanks to a vibrant startup scene here in Birmingham I’ve been able to talk to people in a wide range of roles, working on projects that they’re passionate about. Hearing about these projects and what languages they’ve used to develop them lets me further develop my self study program with an eye towards projects I may want to work on in the future.

I’ve been doing a lot of introductory level work with front end languages (html, JavaScript, CSS) and through these conversations have been encouraged to branch out and sample a wider range of languages and tools before trying to specialize in any of them. I’m excited to be attending a python class at General Assembly London on the 21st and look forward to working with a new language in a person to person learning environment. I’ll also continue to look for direction from the supportive people around me.

First Hackday

I love living in Birmingham. It’s a vibrant, beautiful city with an active tech community and great Chinese food. We’ve got a wide range of technology meetups and hackdays going on most weeks and I’ve wanted to attend one for some time. But I’ve been rather concerned with how my still-modest skill level would play out in a room full of professionals. Luckily, I proved more curious than shy and made my way to my first hackday on Tuesday, hosted by the Birmingham Data Blog.

The hosted event was on data scraping, with the event description reading “If you want to learn about scraping, bring a laptop and we’ll tackle your questions.” I managed to address my first question on my own (Oh god, what is scraping?!) through Wikipedia before deciding to attend and see how much of the material I could understand. I had expected to sit quietly in the back of a room while more advanced folks talked about incomprehensible processes.

Luckily, Paul Bradshaw of the Online Journalism Blog was leading this event. He was able to provide a practical, hands-on illustration of what data scraping feels like through guiding us through simple exercises using Google drive spreadsheets and OutWit. Despite some difficulties with the wifi, Paul managed to provide a useful and level-appropriate demonstration to a mixed ability group and provide me a positive experience for my first hands-on event.

Emboldened by this experience, I’ll be heading to two more events this week.  Here’s hoping that they’re all as patient with me as Paul and the rest of the Data Blog folks were.

I would really encourage anyone just starting out to go out to a hands-on event. Any event. Ask questions, try new things and see how you feel among the community. The industry continues to demand more new talent from a diverse set of backgrounds. Hopefully the folks running events in your area will be aware of this and working to develop events that can accommodate a diverse level of abilities. Keep looking till you find the community able to give your goals and skills the support they deserve. Be more curious than shy.

I would also encourage those running events to make inclusion a mindful part of their event goals. Explicitly working to include mixed level participants can help new or developing coders work up the courage to step forward and begin to make contributions to the community.